To all the Christian women who grew up like I did, believing that they were not achieving all that they could; those who believed that they were not good enough or that they were alone in their suffering.
The Christian Self-Help Book
I trail behind my mother as she walks from the CDs with Christian artists on the covers to the mugs plastered with Bible verses and flowers. We pass the books. Looking at the covers that line the shelves of the Family Christian Store, I see a lot of smiling women. All of them are dressed perfectly, like Christian supermodels. They are thin, and their clothing aligns perfectly with the trends of that year. Leafing through pages, I see chapter titles that are encouraging but largely unsubstantial. All of them seem to want to conform me to the image of the woman on the cover. They give me five simple steps to make my life better. They tell me how Jesus wants me to be more productive, work harder. I know I do not look like these women. And my story has not gone the way that it is supposed to according to their books. Does anyone else struggle like I do?
Much of the Nonfiction writing marketed to Christian Women comes in the form of Christian self-help books. I see a gap between Christian fiction and this type of self-help nonfiction. Where is the nonfiction narrative? Where are the true stories of women’s lives, stories of suffering and pain, but stories of redemption? Well-intentioned Christian women wrote these books to help, but the format is hurting others. Many women who have grown up within the Western Evangelical Christian Subculture have been surrounded by bookstores full of books like these. These books come recommended by mothers, grandmothers, and small group leaders.
Throughout my teenage years, I was handed books about purity and boundaries and waiting for marriage. I read the Beth Moore’s and the Dannah Gresh’s. But not one of them told me that in Christ I was free. None of them taught me about the Incarnation. None of them told me their stories. So, it isn’t hard to believe that by 17, I wasn’t all too sure that I wanted to be part of this kind of Christianity. And why would I? All I had seen in the books that I read, was an image of perfection that I could not relate to. I compared myself to these women and found myself lacking. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t be perfect like they seemed to be. And this media reflected the Christian community I was a part of, because it was coming out of that community. Without substance of faith through theology or community, I was unsure if there was really a God who heard me and acted.
Very few of these popular books exhibit real vulnerability in showing harder aspects of life. They show a glamorized version of reality. Many use personal stories only to push their five-step plan to self-improvement. But deeper relationship with Christ is not one of those steps. Even though these are “Christian” books, they are not CHRIST-ian. Christ is not of central importance as he should be. And his teachings are substituted for the author’s teachings with some Jesus taped on. This mimics every other non-Christian self-help book. But I believe we should have a different goal. Telling our stories through writing and vulnerably sharing in our suffering with others brings about beauty, edifying the body of believers. This directs our gaze back to Jesus Christ, the power of our salvation, who we can rightly gain our identity from.
This is not merely a “Christian book” problem. This is a Christian media problem. Many typical Christian mediums (books, music, movies, radio, etc.) utilize sensationalism. This basically means they always tell the most extreme testimony, show the most suffering orphan, or dress the woman on the cover in the most perfect outfit. (To understand how sensationalism affects us, think of the last time someone asked you how your day was going. Did you feel the need to reply with a phrase like, “Oh, you will not believe what happened to me today!” instead of just answering honestly?) All of this projects an ideal image that continues to be propagated through these Christian mediums. Christian nonfiction is a good example of how this occurs.
Christian publishers flood the market with books written by authors who are guaranteed to sell. In short, easy to consume chapters, the format generally follows that the author will introduce their solution to a problem, share a quick personal story, and drive home their point just before closing the chapter and moving onto their next solution. Because of the prevalence of this type of literature within the sociological context of Evangelicalism, we can witness many of the effects. Women read these books as they flood the market and enter Christian stores. When a book is overtly Christian, discernment is often abandoned in evaluating themes or ideals promoted within it.
As women continue to buy these books, they start to parrot language used in the books and attempt to follow the guidelines set forth in the books to improve themselves. Books are discussed after church on Sunday and the language enters the community. Enough women read the same book and the methods and mindset of it are accepted as factual. If the author releases a Bible Study or Study guide version of the book, churches push it out into women’s’ small groups. When a book has become legitimized, the underlying messages of the book is wholeheartedly embraced. This underlying message often tells women that there is an ideal to be achieved–an ideal beauty, relationship status, spiritual maturity, or emotional state.
Readers are offered neat solutions to the problems of life. Everything we see is a cultivated, filtered version of reality. Authors tell us that problems are ours to solve if we can just work hard enough at it. God is not brought into the conversation. Instead of cultivating a desire for him, the focus is shifted to the self. They gloss over suffering. Even when authors share stories from their own lives, there is often no true vulnerability. Women experiencing real suffering feel that no one can relate to them. They are disappointed when the books they read confirm this. As they strive for perfection, they become desperate, realizing they cannot reach the standard set for them. This creates isolation, shame, and loneliness as suffering is hidden away behind a facade.